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 House Sparrow - Fact File

House Sparrow - Male
male
House Sparrow - Female
female

Passer domesticus
Familiar and abundant resident wherever man is present, in towns, villages and countryside. Recent serious decline of population, but still a common bird in many areas.
Breeds mainly in roofs and holes in buildings, often in colonies. Will also take over nests of House Martins and Sand Martins, sometimes evicting the rightful owners. Equally at home in city centres and farmland, never far from man.

Males plumage is rather smart with grey crown, white cheeks and black bib. Females plain buffy underparts, pale band behind eye and buffy wing-bars help distinguish it from finches and buntings

14.5cm
 

House Sparrow

Universally familiar in appearance the widespread and once abundant house sparrow has become a mystery bird at many localities in recent times. For years we objected to the permanent resident flock in our garden taking more than a fair share of food during the winter. But now weeks pass without a single example putting in an appearance.

Perky and bustling, house sparrows have always been gregarious at all times mixing in autumn and winter with finches in the fields — especially when stubbles remained available to them.

A springtime hazard was an unexplained liking for destroying flowers especially yellow primroses and crocuses. Dust-bathing in new seedbeds has been a further irritation.

Male House Sparrow
Male House Sparrow: photo ©Vasil Ishmatov

House sparrows can rear three broods in a season. Fresh eggs have been known at Christmas and late in August. Nesting sites are varied: under eaves, in ivy or creepers, and in sea cliffs. Before the rightful owners arrive the old nests of house martins are taken over. Sand martins also suffer. I have recorded in a sandpit almost every burrow stuffed with straw belonging to sparrows. The bulky foundations of rooks' and herons' nests also provide desirable sites.

Female House Sparrow
Female House Sparrow: photo © Anna Yu

House sparrows have always roosted socially in winter, often closely packed in evergreen shrubs, ivy-covered buildings, thatched roofs, under the eaves of buildings and even street lamps. The combined chirping of the occupants was so familiar at dusk.

Another house sparrow feature was departure to the cornfields during August. An immense amount of ripe grain must have been eaten and as much wasted.

House sparrows successfully followed man to many parts of the world. Range has been extended by introductions in north and south America, southern Africa, Australia and New Zealand. An interesting situation has developed between north and south America where house sparrow populations are on the point of meeting up again after a separation of some 150 years.

Quite remarkable were the sparrows breeding in a south Yorkshire colliery and fed by the miners 700ft below ground level. The Falklands were colonised by house sparrows travelling aboard a fleet of whalers from Uruguay.

Group of sparrows
Always quick to exploit feeding opportunities!: photo © Christine Nichols

The present decline in house sparrow numbers appears to be widespread over much of western Europe. Many reasons have been suggested including the widespread use of garden pesticides resulting in an absence of insects needed by newborn sparrows. The disappearance of chickens in many farmyards and back gardens must have reduced the availability of food.

Population estimates in 2000 gave between 2.1 and 3.6 million pairs breeding in the UK which is an approximately 50% decline on the estimated 6 million pairs in 1990. The population seems to have now stabilised or even had some local improvements (particularly in Scotland and Wales), but remains of concern and continues to be monitored.

Michael J Seago (with updates by BoB staff)

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Illustrations by Dave Nurney from - The Pocket Guide to the Birds Of Britain and North-West Europe By Chris Kightley and Steve Madge
© Pica Press and reproduced with kind permission.